The Role of the Content Strategist
Your company has decided to implement a content management system (CMS). Perhaps you’re the project manager, charged with assembling the project team. Or maybe you’re the content strategist (CS), wondering what your role will be. You may be the client who is hiring a consulting company to do the implementation for you.
Whatever the situation, look carefully at the makeup of the project team. CMS implementation projects are sometimes assumed to be technical projects, best left to the IT team. Unquestionably, there is a lot of technical work involved. But what can get lost in the technicalities is the fact that what is being implemented is all about content—and not just how it is stored.
The skillset of a content strategist—understanding content and best practices for creating and managing it, as well as the ability to work both with the business and the technical teams is a critical addition to the team if a project is to be successful.
Project Planning and Scope
Ideally, a content strategist is on board at the very start of a CMS project. If a CMS hasn’t been selected, having the input of someone who understands the concepts of reusable content, taxonomy, metadata, authoring workflows, and governance—as well as someone who can be the voice of the end user—can be immensely valuable both in selecting the right tool and in helping design the implementation.
Particularly in a consulting environment, but even in an in-house situation, defining the scope of a project is key to creating accurate budget and resource estimates. The content strategist facilitates this process through several standard tasks, beginning with the content inventory and audit.
The content inventory, a quantitative list of all the content, images, and other resources on a site, is foundational to understanding the current state of a site. Knowing the volume and types of content that will need to be dealt with enables the technical team to begin to estimate the migration task and sets the stage for the content analysis which will inform the overall content strategy.
The content audit builds on the inventory and provides a qualitative assessment of the content against various criteria, including business requirements, user needs, and style and brand guidelines and facilitates making smart decisions about the disposition of all that content.
The inventory and audit process should also include meeting with all the content stakeholders throughout the organization to understand what content they own, how it is currently managed, and what their content workflow is like. This is also the opportunity for the content strategist to lead a review of existing content in order to weed out the outdated, duplicate, or inaccurate content.
It is also helpful to conduct a template and component inventory (often done in concert with a user experience designer) to prepare the way for design decisions that will need to be made later in the project, when content models and templates are being developed.
In many organizations where a CMS is being considered, current-state site management involves a number of different tools and content sources, many of which may end up being replaced or retired as a result of the new system. While there is a technical aspect to reviewing these systems, the content strategist should be involved as well. In addition to identifying which content lives in which systems, which will be important when migration begins, understanding and documenting the role each tool currently plays in the content flow, usually via a content flow diagram, ensures that you won’t miss key functionality or content targets.
Understanding all the ways content is published and the destinations to which it is published is valuable data for creating content models. For example, knowing that a product description not only is fed to the product detail page on a web site but also needs to be available to in-store kiosks or published in printed catalogs helps make key CMS repository and content input template design decisions.
A content strategist can lead the way in ensuring that business requirements, content authoring and workflow, and implementation decisions come together in a usable, useful system.
As the person on the project team with the most detailed knowledge of the content, owners, and existing workflows, a content strategist can work closely with the business analysts and developers who are creating the functional and technical specifications. Designing the content input templates to support the way content authors work and think about content elements (including the actual form field labels and template and component names, which should reflect terminology familiar to the users) as well as designing content models to support multi-channel publishing is a task best led by someone deeply familiar with the content strategy.
Drawing on the analysis of the templates and components, the content strategist can contribute to decisions about the number of new templates and the functionality that needs to be present to support the content—do the developers need to enable dynamic content filtering, for example, or how many content presentation components such as video players, photo galleries, and so on need to be developed? In a highly componentized content management system, the goal should be to create and manage as small a set of flexible, reusable components as possible. It’s highly valuable for a content strategist and user experience designer to collaborate on this step in the process.
Another key piece of content management system design is taxonomy. Often partnering with the information architect or taxonomist, the content strategist provides valuable insight into taxonomy and metadata strategy.
The design of the content repository generally is reflected in the URL patterns for the site, so it’s important to create a flexible, scalable structure that supports the site information architecture. Knowing that a particular content area of the site will be growing significantly in the future, for example, would suggest that the tree structure (or tagging model if content is stored in a flat structure and will be presented dynamically based on metadata) scale to a larger content set via a set of subfolders. Adding structure later risks breaking URLs and necessitates managing rewrites on the back end, so upfront planning save time and trouble in the future.
The meta tagging requirements need to be taken into consideration in this phase as well. Whether it’s simply ensuring that the CMS developers enable the basic title, description, and keyword meta tags or building out a more complex schema that allows tagging by content type, subject, and so on, the content strategist, with a vision for how these tags will enable content features and management on the site, is well suited to providing these requirements.
Most enterprise-level content management systems offer automated workflows and often the step of setting these up falls to the developers. While actually instantiating them in the system may be a development task (not always, many systems now offer WYSIWYG workflow designers that can be set up by anyone), the content strategist should be closely involved. Knowing the content types and the people and processes involved in publishing (gained during the stakeholder interviews earlier in the process and optimized to take advantage of the capabilities of the CMS) enables the content strategist to design appropriate workflows that support efficient publishing while also ensuring appropriate governance. For example, it may be necessary that certain content types must undergo legal review prior to publication. An automated workflow can enforce this step for just that particular content type while allowing other content to take other paths.
The content has been inventoried and reviewed, templates and components developed, the content and digital asset management structures have been designed, and it’s time to migrate the content into the new system. The content strategist plays a lead role in this effort.
When planning a large site migration, one question to be addressed is what, if any, content can be auto-migrated—meaning it’s well-structured enough, usually managed in a database of some sort, and the destination is similar enough in structure to the source to make it feasible. Inevitably, even the most carefully auto-migrated content needs some cleanup, but if the volume is large enough, it’s still worth trying. Here the CS, again as the content expert, works with the development team to assess which content is candidate for that treatment—and then is the person responsible for carefully tracking that everything made it through the process as expected, generally using the content inventory as the guide.
Content that can’t be auto-migrated must be rebuilt manually in the new system. The CS plays an oversight role here, managing the process, often including training the production team, and shepherding the content to completion.
Documentation and Training
At this point in the project, the content strategist should be a subject matter expert in authoring and publishing content via the new content management system. This makes her a good candidate for planning and preparing materials for user guides and for training. Business users of the system benefit from the deep knowledge and expertise in the content and the tool that the content strategist has developed over the course of the project and the strategist can play an important role in ensuring that users are happy with and comfortable using their new system.
A content management system implementation and site migration project is often complex and lengthy and requires a variety of skillsets. The involvement of a content strategist from start to finish helps ensure that design and implementation decisions along the way support both the internal owners and external users of the content by adhering to an informed, carefully thought-out content strategy that addresses the entire lifecycle of the content.